Lecture 14: Wilson in Latin America


I. Woodrow Wilson is widely regarded as the quintessential Idealist in the realm of foreign policy.

          A. The traditional version of political “realism” was the European “balance of power” system.        

                    1. Since the emergence of modern Europe, European countries had used constantly shifting alliances to attempt to maintain a balance of power on the continent. It had not been particularly successful in keeping the peace (until the 19th Century and the Concert of Europe), but it had been successful in preventing any one power from dominating the others.

         B. The US had, since Washington, viewed the European system as corrupt and morally bankrupt.

                    1. First, the European countries were monarchies, and foreign policy decision-making was based on expedience, bearing no relation or connection to the will of the people.

                    2. Second, this expedience was itself suspect to Americans—they didn’t understand how a country could be an ally with another country in one year or situation and be an enemy to the same country the next. Where was the loyalty of friendship?

           C. Though Roosevelt was the first US President to stake a claim to a role in international affairs for the US, Wilson was the first to establish the US as a force to be reckoned with.

                    1. Wilson’s foreign policy was based not on notions of the national interest, but on the belief that the US and the US economic and political system was morally superior to all other forms of government. He felt that the expansion of US influence abroad meant the export of the US economic and political system and its values.

 II. While tensions in Europe were building, Wilson’s attention was on Latin American affairs—where the US was busy trying to prevent European powers from gaining influence.

          a. In the Dominican Republic: the US had taken over the country’s finances in 1905. In 1916, when the Dominicans refused to accept a treaty sacrificing more sovereignty to the Americans, Wilson established a military government there.

          b. In Haiti, the US landed marines in 1915 to put down a revolution—the US troops stayed there until 1934.

          c. When Wilson began to suspect that Germany might try to gain influence in the Danish West Indies, he purchased the islands from Denmark. (Now Virgin Islands).

          d. Wilson strong-armed the Nicaraguans into signing a treaty that prohibited any other power from building a canal through that country and which authorized the US to intervene there in order to protect American interests.

 III. It was in Mexico that Wilson’s “missionary” view of US foreign policy was put to the test.

          A. First, it is worthwhile to note that the US had over $1 billion in investments in Mexico. This was a lot of money at the time.

          B. In 1910 the corrupt and repressive government of Porfirio Diaz was overthrown by a group led by Fransisco Madero. The US was in a difficult position because though repressive, the Diaz government was friendly to US investors. The new Madero government was promising democratic reforms, but threatened US investments

          C. In 1913 the Madero government was overthrown by the reactionary general Victoriano Huearta. The US wanted to recognize the new government, but before it could do so, the Huearta regime launched a repressive campaign, murdering numerous opposition leaders including Madero. The US refused to recognize Huerta.

                   1. Instead, the US decided to offer assistance to the Mexican resistance led by Venustiano Carranza.   Carranza refused any overt help, but accepted arms and supplies. 

                   2. Then, in April 1914, some US sailors were briefly arrested in Veracruz, Mexico. Though Mexico let them go almost immediately and apologized, Wilson decided to use the incident to justify an intervention. The US seized the port of Veracruz, killing 126 Mexican defenders. With the US and Mexico at the brink of War, Wilson decided it was not worth it and withdrew. However, the intervention had strengthened Carranza, who was able to take over Mexico by August 1914. 

                   3. When Carranza refused to follow US advise concerning the structure of the new Mexican government, Wilson decided to support one of his subordinates instead—Pancho Villa. While popular in Mexico, Villa did not have the requisite military backing, and Wilson soon withdrew his support and recognized the Carranza government in October, 1915. 

                    4. Villa felt betrayed by the US, and sought revenge. For several years, Villa and a large band of bandits raided US settlements near the Mexican border, and eventually Wilson sent US troops into Northern Mexico to pursue him.  These troops were never able to find Villa, but they did have several battles with Carranza’s forces, again bringing the nations close to war. 

                    5. With events in Europe pressing for Wilson’s attention, Wilson quietly retreated from Mexico—having spent 4 years trying to “civilize” Mexico—he had gained nothing but a lasting Mexican hostility toward the US.